When I retired, I vowed not to become one of those old men who talks only about his health and the outrage he saw on cable news that day.

The cable news part has been easy — The Fabulous Wife and I cut the cord years ago.

The health part has also been easy. Until now, that is, because for the first time in decades I’ve been seriously ill.

It seems silly not to write about the central focus of my life for the last two months in this, my personal blog. On the other hand, I made that vow. Am I going to stay true to my word, or what?

Or what.

Just before Thanksgiving I came down with an annoying but familiar cough. My old foe, wintertime asthma! I’d been through this often, usually after a sinus cold migrated to my respiratory tract. I knew how to handle it. Except this time my body threw me a curve: I developed cold symptoms after the asthma. Not sure what to do, I went to my doctor. He examined me carefully and concluded the cold would go away and a spike in asthma meds would take care of the remaining respiratory distress. I concurred, took the additional meds, and waited for them to do their magic.

But they didn’t clear me. I had good days and bad days. On the night of December 21–22, I experienced severe constriction and pain in my right side that kept me awake for hours. But eventually I fell asleep, and when I woke up I was fine. Must have slept wrong, I concluded. But the next night the constriction and pain returned even worse — and didn’t go away. I couldn’t sleep, and gasped for breath. On the morning of December 23, I uttered words to The Fabulous Wife I’m not sure she ever heard from me before, because I’m one of those guys: “I think I need medical attention.”

I was diagnosed with serious pneumonia in my right lung, prescribed a potent antibiotic, and assured I would start feeling better in a few days.

I did start feeling better, except that just as with the asthma meds, the antibiotic didn’t clear me. So on January 6 I met with a pulmonologist. She looked over my chest x-ray, estimated I had somewhere between half a liter and a full liter of extra fluid on my right lung, and offered to authorize a thoracentesis, a minor procedure in which the excess fluid is sucked out via syringe. I readily agreed, and the procedure was scheduled for January 14.

I was hoping for an immediate, conclusive fix, but it wasn’t to be. Using ultrasound rather than an x-ray to view my lung, the thoracentesis team discovered the fluid was not an undifferentiated mass, but was collecting into a number of semi-solid sacs called loculated pleural effusions. The team extracted fluid from one of the sacs, had it tested, and learned the pleural effusions had become infected, a condition called empyema.

Left untreated, empyema takes months to heal, and according to the pulmonologist, natural healing isn’t always complete; the sacs could scar over and stay in place, permanently impairing my breathing. If I wanted to run again, she warned, the only alternative was to check into the hospital for a serious procedure called a visually assisted thoracoscopy, where a surgeon slices through the chest wall and, aided by an arthroscope, clears out and/or flattens the infected sacs.

I had the surgery on Friday, January 17. It went well, but I remained in the hospital another five days to make sure the chest wall closed properly and I didn’t develop a secondary infection. (For the record, the surgeon opined that had I not opted for the thoracoscopy, I wouldn’t have slowly recovered, but would have slowly died.)

I’d never been hospitalized before. It was quite an experience, not all pleasant, as I’m sure you can imagine, especially if you’ve recently been hospitalized yourself. But I’m home now, feeling better than I have since first developing that cough in late November, and slowly recovering my breath and stamina. So in the next couple of posts I plan to talk a little about my experience (I’m still not entirely comfortable whining about my health) and more about the American way of health care.

One consolation: the view of San Francisco sunsets from my hospital room.

Former Risk Manager at UC Berkeley, author of four books, ectomorphic introvert.

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